Sixteen-year-old Nikita Leus-Oliva is too young to vote or pay taxes, but she is a powerhouse of civic involvement. She started the Miami Teen Dems to encourage her contemporaries to attend campaign events, canvass for candidates and register voters. She’s volunteered on a presidential campaign, hosted teens-only, jam-packed phone banks and protested at a post-inauguration rally in the nation’s capital.
As a child of immigrants, Leus-Oliva was fueled by outrage at anti-immigrant rhetoric and her own desire to shape the future of her community and country. When politics became personal, she didn’t let her age stop her from becoming civically involved. And that’s a very good thing.
The pros of protest
More than ever, politics is a volatile arena, one many parents may feel their children have no place in. But encouraging civic involvement in children and teens means raising individuals who are more thoughtful, compassionate and kind. And there are a variety of ways in which your child can become (safely) politically involved.
Young people can engage in partisan or nonpartisan groups. From a small to a grand scale, teens can make a positive impact on political and nonpolitical processes, while testing the waters of leadership. Children can also tap into structured programs that include students in government bodies.
Many cities within Miami-Dade County, including Pinecrest, Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay, Homestead and Miami Gardens, have youth advisory councils that provide civics education and engagement experiences. Some local mayors even tap teens to attend meetings, help plan community events and offer their opinions on local issues, particularly those that directly concern them, such as education and youth violence.
The Miami-Dade County Youth Commission, for example, involves teens in county government, providing a yearlong window into protocol and decision-making. Participants study problems and hold forums on issues. As commission members, youths can comment on existing or proposed legislation, ordinances, resolutions and policies that directly impact teens, as well as discuss ways to resolve youth-related conflicts.
The Children’s Trust’s Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) is a youth leadership program that any high school student in Miami-Dade County may apply to join. Through regular meetings, trainings and firsthand service-learning experiences, YAC-ers spend the academic year honing leadership and advocacy skills, and planning and participating in hands-on community improvement events. An annual highlight for the group is a trip to Tallahassee, where members meet one-on-one with legislators and view the workings of state government in an up-close-and-personal way.
For teens interested in learning about law enforcement, many local municipalities offer the Police Explorer program. Participants meet regularly with officers to interact in a structured way with people working in the justice system. Miami-Dade County, Miami and South Miami Police Explorers all have an active online presence with clear information about programming and entry points for involvement.
Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have civic badges and service programs that focus on identifying problems, community betterment and advocacy. These programs pull from their groups’ pillars of self-reliance and community-building within their organizations, as well as looking outward at collective problems that need fixing.
Numerous local nonprofits organize youth around civic issues and leadership, as well. The Power U Center for Social Change organizes and develops youth leadership to fight oppression. The Catalyst Miami advocacy organization has a leadership and environmental program for children and their parents, who must enroll in a parallel program. And Engage Miami encourages youth civic activism at monthly organizing meetings, including know-your-rights events, letter writing campaigns and voter registration efforts.
Miami educator and youth leadership trainer I'Tita N. Alexander says cultivating leadership skills in teens is crucial. However, many are reluctant to lead because of the pressure to be followers. Alexander says the process of becoming a pacesetter involves reflection on the positive qualities of those in charge, but also bravery to speak up and act.
Encourage your children to lead through example. Let them see how you take the initiative at work, help out friends, or volunteer in the community or at your place of worship. Note what you’re doing, how you’re stepping up, and why it matters. Doing so sends a clear signal about what it takes to become involved.
Parents should seize every opportunity to discuss societal problems with their children, and ways to approach challenges individually and as a group. Getting enmeshed in civic involvement helps teens feel more in control of their communities and helps them to expand their horizons.
Zafreen Jaffery, Ed.D., a research and evaluation analyst for The Children’s Trust, brings more than 16 years’ experience in research, evaluation and teaching to her work, and is passionate about promoting educational equity and social justice for all children. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org.
▪ Miami Teen Dems www.mdteendems.com
▪ Miami-Dade County Youth Commission www.miami-dade.gov/youthcommission
▪ The Children’s Trust’s Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) www.thechildrenstrust.org/content/youth-advisory-committee
▪ Miami-Dade County Police Explorer Program www.miamidade.gov/police/police-explorer-program.asp
▪ Boy Scouts of America South Florida Council www.sfcbsa.org
▪ Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida www.girlscoutsfl.org
▪ Power U Center for Social Change poweru.org
▪ Catalyst Miami catalystmiami.org/our-work/lead
▪ Engage Miami www.engage.miami